Recommendation: Graham’s The Four Quadrants of Conformism

I’m biased, I admit, but it seems to me that aggressively conventional-minded people are responsible for a disproportionate amount of the trouble in the world, and that a lot of the customs we’ve evolved since the Enlightenment have been designed to protect the rest of us from them.
Paul Graham

A frequent topic on this blog is freedom of speech, esp. in relation to anything that undermines the free exchange of ideas, even bad ideas. If you can’t have that — how can you be truly creative?

And yet there are those who want to stifle it, and those who nevertheless find a way.

Paul Graham recently wrote an interesting essay titled “The Four Quadrants of Conformism“, which shines some light on conformism, adding another axis (similar to the political compass) and differentiating between different types of (anti-)conformity: Tattletales, Sheep, Dreamy Ones, and Naughty Ones.

He did not include a graphic, but if I understand him correctly, it could be visualized as such:

Graphic based on Paul Graham, “The Four Quadrants of Conformism

His essay also contains some gems (he’s an excellent writer):

Why do the independent-minded need to be protected, though? Because they have all the new ideas. To be a successful scientist, for example, it’s not enough just to be right. You have to be right when everyone else is wrong. Conventional-minded people can’t do that. For similar reasons, all successful startup CEOs are not merely independent-minded, but aggressively so. So it’s no coincidence that societies prosper only to the extent that they have customs for keeping the conventional-minded at bay.

In the last few years, many of us have noticed that the customs protecting free inquiry have been weakened. Some say we’re overreacting — that they haven’t been weakened very much, or that they’ve been weakened in the service of a greater good. The latter I’ll dispose of immediately. When the conventional-minded get the upper hand, they always say it’s in the service of a greater good. It just happens to be a different, incompatible greater good each time.

As for the former worry, that the independent-minded are being oversensitive, and that free inquiry hasn’t been shut down that much, you can’t judge that unless you are yourself independent-minded. You can’t know how much of the space of ideas is being lopped off unless you have them, and only the independent-minded have the ones at the edges. Precisely because of this, they tend to be very sensitive to changes in how freely one can explore ideas. They’re the canaries in this coalmine.

Paul Graham, “The Four Quadrants of Conformism

and continues by debunking the argument that “only bad” ideas are shut down, and continues with the situation at universities:

On the other hand, perhaps the decline in the spirit of free inquiry within universities is as much the symptom of the departure of the independent-minded as the cause. People who would have become professors 50 years ago have other options now. Now they can become quants or start startups. You have to be independent-minded to succeed at either of those. If these people had been professors, they’d have put up a stiffer resistance on behalf of academic freedom. So perhaps the picture of the independent-minded fleeing declining universities is too gloomy. Perhaps the universities are declining because so many have already left.
Paul Graham, “The Four Quadrants of Conformism

and ends on an optimistic note:

But I’m hopeful long term. The independent-minded are good at protecting themselves. If existing institutions are compromised, they’ll create new ones. That may require some imagination. But imagination is, after all, their specialty.
Paul Graham, “The Four Quadrants of Conformism

Highly recommended (take care to read the footnotes as well, they are well worth it).